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Eye on the streets: George Forss.

PHOTO: Alicia Solsman

The 9/11 Effect

Photographer George Forss has prepared what is likely to be an important book of rare, often vanished views of New York City in the 1990s—and no publisher will touch it

By Jacqueline Keren

It is the latest twist in a Dick-ensian life—a poor Bronx family, scattered and reunited, orphanages and street life, unexpected fame. This time, it is the events of Sept. 11, 2001, that are redirecting the career of photographer George Forss.

Forss, who lives now in Cambridge, Washington County, made a name for himself in the 1980s with his photographs of New York City, collected in the book New York, New York: Masterworks of a Street Peddler. His second book, The Access Project, a collection of photographs taken in the 1990s, is still in search of a publisher, thanks in part to haunting images of the World Trade Center scattered throughout the material. His partner in the project, Phyllis Wrynn of Park Slope Gallery in Brooklyn, says, “The worst thing that could ever happen did as the project was ending.” She is, of course, referring to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. For many in New York City and beyond, images of the World Trade Center are anything but wistful. Now, she says, the challenge is to find a way to present the pictures that respects their artistry as well as their tragic history.

The Access Project features photographs of New York City from private vantage points: rooftops, bridges, private apartments, and public-works buildings, which normally are off limits to the public but which were opened to Forss with the help of his gallery. According to Wrynn, “it’s a joyous exploration of New York and how it grew and changed in the 1990s,” and includes many “joyous last images of the World Trade Center taken in this unique way.”

Forss is no stranger to curveballs. He began peddling his shots on the streets of New York City in the 1970s. He had one rule about selling: “Go where the money is.” He set up shop in business areas but experimented anywhere crowds spilled out of buildings. “I would try to get something peddlers call a ‘run,’ where one person buying a photo turns into a chain reaction. It might take three hours to get a run but you make all your money in half an hour.” Forss was pragmatic, listening to the preferences of his street clients. When they didn’t buy his shots of homeless people, he began taking pictures of New York in its finer mo ments. Self taught, he soon developed an eye for the city at its most radiant, creating black-and-white portraits that are at once both grand and intimate, juxtaposing colossal structures with private moments.

Forss says his talent comes mostly from stubbornness and not from any innate gifts. Growing up in the Bronx, he was inspired by his mother, who worked with a simple Brownie camera, taking pictures of her six children and movie stars like Betty Grable and Jimmy Stewart while she peddled newspapers in the theater district. “She had a masterful technique,” Forss says.

Meanwhile, his father, an illegal immigrant from Scandinavia, belonged to a street gang in Manhattan and was eventually deported. Later in life, Forss spent nine years in Finland, getting to know his father, who had become well-known as an environmental reporter. It was, he recalls, a “priceless” experience.

With his father absent, the family broke up, and Forss was raised in orphanages. Later he survived in New York City through a series of odd jobs, supporting his mother and a sibling, with whom he had reunited in a decaying farmhouse in Brooklyn. It was when he was working as a bike messenger that he got the idea to take photographs and sell them on the street. Not long after he became a street vendor, David Douglas Duncan, a photojournalist with Life magazine, happened by Forss’ sidewalk display. At first he thought the arresting images had been taken by Ansel Adams. When he realized his mistake, he helped Forss publish his first book with McGraw Hill in 1984. Forss’s story quickly spread and led to an appearance on NBC’s Today. In a life rife with unexpected encounters, a dentist watching the show offered to fix Forss’ teeth in exchange for Forss’s photographs. Other, more enduring contacts included the editor of Popular Photography, who gave Forss several rare, hand-ground lenses, similar to those used by Ansel Adams, to add to what is now a collection of about 30, some dating from the 1920s. “The greatest photographers have the simplest cameras and keep using them,” Forss says.

In 1989, when the Brooklyn farmhouse was condemned, Forss relocated to Cambridge and has been on Main Street since, operating the Ginofor Gallery, which represents local painters, and his photography business. Throughout the 1990s, he continued to travel to New York to produce material for The Access Project.

Wrynn has been in Park Slope since 1967, when the neighborhood, now splashy, was considered off-limits by banks, which refused to lend money for home investments. She met Forss through clients and was immediately taken with his work and agreed to represent him.

While delivering artwork to the homes of clients with unique views of the city’s skyline, Mitch Friedlin, Wrynn’s partner, got the notion of photographing New York from these exclusive perches. “Everyone can go to the top of the Empire State Building,” Wrynn says, “but not everyone can see Rodney’s view.” As it turned out, their clients had unusual access to interesting angels, and included a skyscraper manager, an employee of the Port Authority with access to bridges and tunnels normally closed to the public, and an electrician working in the new federal office building in lower Manhattan who escorted them up to a view “that never existed before.”

Over a period of eight years, the gallery coordinated shoots every two months in equally stunning and private locations. It was “an enormous commitment,” Wrynn says. They would get up at 4 AM, and over the course of a day travel to two or three locations. The end result was thousands of images of New York and Brooklyn, some, according to Wrynn, that could make you weep. “They are a dialogue of how people see the city, places to go where the mind can rest and expand.”

“George was out of his mind with excitement when he began developing the photos,” Wrynn continues. His photos capture the layers of New York City, some with dizzying depth, others with a strangely flat quality that makes the city seem dispassionate, remote. In a city of extremes, Forss also has a talent for finding contrasts, pairing the colossal with the intimate, natural elements with the man-made. And then there’s the romance. Referring to a shot from the AIG building at 70 Pine St., looking down into a high-rise canyon, Wrynn swears she “can hear Rhapsody in Blue.” In many are the looming images of the twin towers, stern, forbidding, foreboding.

The quest for a high-quality publisher has been a difficult one, as most apparently wish to steer clear of the project. Forss confesses to being confused as to why no one wants to publish the photos. “The public isn’t interested,” he says. “It’s too sad. And with the war, who knows what will happen next.”

While the search continues, Wrynn struggles with how to present the material. “What do you do with [the] towers, what do you say?’’ she asks. Disturbed by “how people were rushing to publish books while the ashes fell,” she worries about appearing to take advantage of the events of 9/11. Instead, she wants to publish Forss’s images to celebrate a bygone era and restore a shattered relationship between New Yorkers and their city. Difficult as it may be, she hopes to put the tragedy in a context where you can look at Forss’s images “and not fall apart.”

In the meantime, journalist Christopher Ketcham has agreed to write the introduction to the book. Ketcham, who writes for Harper’s, Mother Jones, GQ, salon.com and many other magazines, helped her see the material in a new way. “There’s been incredible overbuilding since then [the 1990s], and many buildings have been demolished,” Wrynn says. “A lot of what George captured doesn’t exist anymore.” Manhattan and Brooklyn offer completely different landscapes now, she says, and Forss’s photos offer a “perspective on the past, on what we’re losing.”

Once Ketcham’s introduction is ready, Wrynn says she’ll be ready to approach publishers again. “All I care about is that it gets done in the most perfect way. If it’s not done right, then it was all for nothing.” They’ve winnowed down the material to about 300 images, a difficult task. While many photographers are content with getting one good shot out of several dozen, Forss will take several “magnificent shots,” according to Wrynn. “It’s hard to say one is not as good as the others.”

While larger-than-life forces continue to sway the fate of his book, Forss has moved on to new projects. Last year, he completed a series of photos of the Cambridge Balloon Festival. Now he is shooting alleys in Saratoga Springs. “The bright sun and extreme shadows on old walls creates an amazing effect,” he says. Enos, a book of religious writing he is self-publishing, is due out next year. He continues to show his work at the Park Slope Gallery and will participate in an Artists Tour in Washington County next summer. Despite a take-it-as-it-comes attitude, Wrynn says he believes strongly in The Access Project. “It means a lot [to him] that it should happen by its virtue and value.”


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